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Hurrah, It’s Scary Women Again

It’s Women in Horror Month, and as usual, we’re mildly conflicted. After all, extremely talented women are writing, painting  and sculpting the weird the whole year round. And at greydogtales, we believe in showcasing the work of creative people you may not know irrespective of their gender. Or even species, come to that. Chilli, our alpha female longdog, would have it no other way.

But we also sort of agree with the idea, so this is our compromise. Our Scary Women features have the virtue of being repeatable whatever the month, signposting cool writers, and leaving a bit more room for discussion about gender and writing at the same time. One day we’ll get round to asking men some gender-related questions, in a new series. Confused Men, perhaps. We wonder if anyone will volunteer for that one? Hmmm.


We’re delighted to be joined today by two great UK authors, Victoria Leslie and Laura Mauro. You may have seen their short stories already – you’ll certainly see more of them in the future. Laura and Victoria were first  suggested to us by author Nina Allan, who wrote an excellent and detailed piece about women in horror – and about embracing new talent in general – not long ago. If we can find the link, we’ll add it at the end.

Here we go…

laura mauro
laura mauro
victoria leslie
victoria leslie

greydog: Welcome to both of you. Let’s start with the overall view as we did in the last Scary Women. The markets, and to some extent the fans, often like to label their favourite authors. Gothic, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, paranormal and so on. What do you call the genre(s) in which you write, regardless of other people’s labels?

laura: It’s simplest to say that I write horror, although I notice that when I speak to people who don’t really read within the genre that the ‘horror’ label comes with a lot of assumptions. I suppose what I write errs on the side of ‘dark fantasy’ rather than true horror, but if it creeps people out – and I hope it does – then I think I get to sit at the horror table, even if only at the very corner.

victoria: I think of the genre I work within as dark fiction or horror. I like how broad the term speculative fiction is as it encapsulates so many facets within the genres and personally I quite like it when these overlap. I particularly like the kind of dark fiction that is showcased by publications like Shadows and Tall Trees, which categorises itself as a purveyor of weird fiction. Also journals like the limited edition Curious Tales I think demonstrate that there is a need for subtle horror, or literary dark fiction.


greydog: Why this genre? For example, if you seek to explore people’s psychology, why use dark or scary fiction to go there? If you write to thrill, why horror rather than, say, adventure stories?

victoria: I’ve always been interested in stories about the unexplained, about things on the edge of our perception. I especially liked hearing ghost stories when I was growing up and my mum sometimes used to let me watch the X Files or The Outer Limits – if she deemed it tame enough – which I think really fuelled this interest. I think the draw of writing dark fiction is that you can tap into this inherent fear we all share of what really exists out there, of what monsters and ghouls haunt us literally or figuratively. I think, compared to any other genre, dark fiction allows you to process and respond to the complexities of the human experience.

laura: I once joked that I always dreamed of writing cyberpunk but I know sod-all about technology. It’s really hard to explain why I write horror. I think it’s just more interesting to explore the human condition via the dark and the weird because those things are inherent in all of us – we just prefer to gloss over it and pretend we’re all perfectly normal. And also, with horror, there’s the freedom to colour outside the lines and bring in bizarre elements you could never get away with in, say, an adventure story. You really get to explore the strangest limits of the imagination.

reiko murakami
reiko murakami

greydog: Last time we featured writers from North America. Coming from the UK, do you see a difference between British and North American horror?

laura: There was a really interesting panel on this subject at last year’s Fantasycon and I remember someone mentioning that British horror seems to have a very defined sense of place. We’re fascinated by environments. We love a good ancient, crumbling house on the moors, or any place that carries with it a sense of history. The British psyche as a collective has a tendency to obsess over the past. And I think our folklore and legend is inextricable from our history – so many of the more famous ‘true’ ghost stories involve historical figures, whether it’s Henry VIII haunting Hampton Court or long-dead stage actors lurking on Underground platforms.

victoria: I don’t really see much of a difference between British and North American Horror. I enjoy the work of writers from both sides of the Atlantic. I confess that I read more work by English writers, though I don’t do this intentionally.


greydog: Were you affected by the market presence of other women already writing in the genre?

victoria: When I began writing, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read a lot of what you would call current genre fiction. My background is in nineteenth century literature and I was, and still am, a big reader of writers from that period, both male and female. So the women writers I was reading included, Ann Radcliffe, Edith Wharton, Mary Shelley and Vernon Lee. Since then, I’m glad to say I’ve enjoyed catching up with the work of women writers working in the genre now (and male writers too) though, as there’s a female agenda here I’ll stick to the girls: Helen Marshall, Cate Gardner, Alison Moore, Priya Sharma, Carole Johnstone…to name but a few.

laura: Personally, no. When I first started submitting stories to magazines I really had no idea of who was writing what outside of a small, selected bunch of writers I was familiar with through Black Static and Shadows and Tall Trees. So for me it was more of a ‘I like what I’m reading and want to get on that train too’ sort of situation.

cover by santiago caruso
cover by santiago caruso

greydog: We’ve heard it said that there is an area of paranormal and horror fiction which is dominated by male writers and readers, perhaps a bleaker, nastier section of the field. Do you think that’s the case?

laura: It depends on how you define bleak and nasty. I feel like there’s a tendency to consider fiction which deals with physical brutality and violence as the bleakest, nastiest stuff out there but I think that greatly underestimates the impact a well-crafted psychological story can have. You can read a story which has little to no physicality, not a single drop of blood, and emerge feeling completely emotionally drained. But if we’re talking about traditionally nasty horror…I probably have read more of these types of stories written by men – although you could question whether it really is because men write ‘nastier’ horror, or whether it’s because they have a certain confidence in submitting more extreme content whereas female writers are more inclined to hold back and reign ourselves in. Having said that, one of the nastiest (and most brutally effective) stories I’ve ever read is ‘The Guinea-Pig Girl’ by Thana Niveau, which tempered its brutality with a searing insight into what that brutality actually meant.

victoria: I completely concur. ‘The Guinea Pig Girl‘ is a really potent story. I don’t think women are less drawn to write about the more brutal side of horror but perhaps these kinds of stories appear in different kinds of publications. In terms of being a women writer, I’ve never felt a pressure to write a certain type of horror, I’ve just tried to consolidate my own voice. Also, I’ve never encountered anything but inclusivity and welcome in my writing career, the British horror scene especially is very warm and encouraging. Though as Nina Allan’s recent blog post very cogently points out, there is still a massive gender disparity in some of the leading publications, whose job it is to showcase current talent. This is a shame as there are some amazing women writers out there, which is not the impression some of these anthologies give and readers new to the genre face the task of seeking them out independently.


greydog: Nina’s piece was good – we’ve found the link and have it below. Let’s sneak down to character level. Do you feel more involved writing a female character, or does it make no difference what gender the character is?

victoria: I’ve written male and female characters. Perhaps there are some facets I can relate to more readily when writing a female character but the job of being a writer is to get inside your character’s head regardless of gender. Many of my characters are actually a bit obsessive about something, so I try to pivot character traits on these motivations, rather than to think about gender alone.

laura: I have a tendency to write female main characters, and this is partly because I want to tell stories about women – and when I say that, I mean stories in which women exist and behave and ‘do’ in exactly the same way men do, without their female-ness necessarily impacting on the plot. I don’t know how much sense that makes? I feel like there’s sometimes an onus on female writers to tell stories about the female experience, and I want to emphasise that I don’t have a problem with doing that, but I also want to normalise female protagonists in horror fiction to the point where their gender is just another feature of their character – not necessarily the driving force of their character.


greydog: The cheap way of writing so-called ‘strong’ female characters is to make them as axe-happy as the men and swear more. That may be fun, but it’s not exactly the answer. What makes a female character ‘strong’ for you?

laura: This is a great question. I have issues with the way we instinctively conflate ‘strength’ with ‘physicality’, and by extension, with ‘violence’. One thing I have a huge problem with is the way we create these ‘strong female characters’ who can fight and snark and power through life but are never, ever allowed to be flawed. They don’t get to be real people. I feel like it’s incredibly lazy – you’re not investing any time into making that person a person, with all the complexities that entails, and that means glaring imperfections, just like every other character. ‘Strong’ does not also mean ‘beyond critique’!

That’s not to say that a physically strong woman can’t also be a good character. There just has to be more to her than her ability in battle, or how unflinchingly she faces down danger. I guess what needs to be asked is, what makes a character strong? My all-time favourite example of this is Dana Scully from The X-Files. She’s determined, intelligent, physically capable, holds her own in a male-dominated environment, stands up for herself and for those she cares about. She probably saves Mulder as often as he saves her. But she’s also frustrating, bullheaded, sometimes easily led, makes bad relationship choices. She’s allowed to be vulnerable, which is important because it’s only through her vulnerability that you’re able to see how strong she can be. We don’t love her any less because she’s flawed – that’s what makes her relatable and realistic.

victoria: I think strength for both female and male characters comes from an inner strength, strength of integrity or through overcoming adversity in its many forms. I do enjoy depictions of female physical strength in popular culture, but I’m finicky about accuracy and realism. I’m turned off by women in tight outfits and silhouettes fighting bad guys but am drawn to forceful characters in literature, like Ruby in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for instance, who possess resilience and fortitude and the practical skills to protect herself and others. The figure of the virago interests me very much but I think we have a long way to go to define and celebrate female physical strength that isn’t solely through a comparison to masculinity.


greydog: Cool – we’d have to agree with both of you there. Do you feel that you write primarily for a particular audience – female, male, young, old – or do you not see it that way when you’re actually getting on with it?

victoria: I’ve never felt overly concerned with the need to write for a particular audience, except in the cases I’ve been asked to contribute to a certain anthology. But even then, I’ve been driven by the need to write my story more than anything else. I just hope the readers, whoever they may be, like it.

laura: I don’t think so, no. I just write whatever comes into my head and hope that someone will enjoy it.

reiko murakami
reiko murakami

greydog: Which other female writer(s) in the field, early or contemporary, do you admire?

laura: Horror readers are extremely fortunate at the moment as there’s an absolute goldmine of fantastic female writers out there. My favourite horror novel is ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver, which is one of the only stories I’ve read that genuinely scared the life out of me. I recently read ‘White Rabbit’ by Georgina Bruce in the latest Black Static, which blew me away. There’s a list of brilliant female horror writers as long as my arm and I will inevitably accidentally leave some of them out, for which I apologise – Cate Gardner, Alison Littlewood, Thana Niveau, Helen Oyeyemi, Priya Sharma, Carole Johnstone, Lynda Rucker, VH Leslie, Sara Saab, Sarah Pinborough, Helen Marshall, Alyssa Wong, Nina Allan, Kathe Koja, SP Miskowski, Rosanne Rabinowitz. This isn’t just a laundry list of female writers – all of them have written stories which have left me thinking ‘wow, we’ve got a good thing going here’. I’d love for things to reach a point where it’s just taken as read that women write horror fiction, and good horror fiction.

victoria: Besides the writers listed above I enjoy the fiction of Daphne Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, A.S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, Sarah Waters, Nina Allan, Thana Niveau, Laura Mauro, Alison Littlewood, Lynda Rucker, Karen Russell, Lucy Wood and many, many more!

reiko murakami
reiko murakami

greydog: And finally, as we’ve got you here, where next for your writing? Tell us what we might be seeing from you in 2016.

victoria: My debut novel Bodies of Water is due out from Salt Publishing in May. And while we’re talking about women in horror, I should add that it has a very feminist flavour. I’ve just had stories published in Black Static and The Hyde Hotel and have a few others intended for anthologies later in the year.

laura: I’ve got a couple of short stories coming out in anthologies in the coming months, which is nice, including the title story in NewCon Press’ 10-year anniversary collection ‘Obsidian’, which features a whole load of great horror stories by female writers. I’m also planning to write a novel, although I’ve been saying that for at least two years now…

reiko murakami
reiko murakami

greydog: Many thanks to both of you for taking part. We hope listeners will seek out some of the names you mentioned – as well as your own work, naturally.


Some of the art today is by the fabulous Reiko Murakami, and you really should visit her site to see more – raqmo. The previous Scary Women, with Anita Stewart and Clarissa Johal, can be found here – scary women.

Victoria, writing as V H Leslie, has a blog you can check out,  v h leslie.  Laura can be found here, the crunchiest blanket .And as mentioned, Nina Allan‘s essay, which is a great read, is here – where are we going?

Next week on greydogtales, we have lurchers, lighthouses and more weird things than you can possibly imagine (please note: this is not a legally binding statement).

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Scary Women: Clarissa Johal and Anita Stewart

Welcome, dear listeners. We’re back to horror, and going for something different today. Inevitably, we find ourselves covering quite a lot of fiction by dead white males, including the weird works of Hope Hodgson and Lovecraft. We can’t kick the period/pulp habit. But today we have two living, contemporary female authors with us – Anita Stewart and Clarissa Johal for our first Scary Women feature. Not only are they cool people to know, but they’ve notched up a lot of books between them, and they write horror that’s a bit different from our usual fare. Have a look…


greydogtales is about the weird, and about the creative urge. We celebrate what others create, be they women, longdogs or even men, and encourage our listeners to get involved. Last autumn, during the October Frights blog-hop, we met a number of neat female authors who do not obsess about Cthulhu stealing their minds (generally) but who produce the sort of fiction they want to produce. From paranormal worries to full-blown horror, their stories are what they do.

Women are not defined by men (it’s true, you know), and writers in this field are certainly not defined by the opinions of a decrepit Yorkshireman who happens to produce weird fiction. We wanted to have some women speak about the genre in which they chose to write, and why. And, in the process, see if they thought that gender affected their writing. Simple as that.

So we’re very pleased to have Anita  and Clarissa with us, so we can get the low-down. Both of our guests have novels and anthologised stories available.


Writing as A F Stewart, Anita writes horror, SF and fantasy, and is from Nova Scotia, Canada. She also versifies.

Clarissa Johal headshot

Clarissa is from the United States, and writes tales of the paranormal (when she’s not on her trapeze).

greydog: Welcome, both of you. Let’s start with the overall view. The markets, and to some extent the fans, often like to label their favourite authors. Gothic, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, paranormal romance and so on. What do you call the genre(s) in which you write, regardless of other people’s labels?

clarissa: Paranormal without the romance, gothic horror without the gore. Simple as that. There may be some romantic tension, but if you’re looking for full-blown romance, look elsewhere. My characters keep their clothes on, and the bedroom door shut.

anita: As I write in a few genres, the labels tend to change depending on the story or book, but overall I generally use the labels dark fantasy or horror. I’ve also been known to sneak into the genres of paranormal, gothic, sci-fi, steampunk, poetry, and even non-fiction. I’m a bit fickle that way. And similar to Clarissa, I rarely write romance, or romantic scenes. My characters kill each other more often than kiss one another (although sometimes they do both).

greydog: So why these areas? By that we mean if fantasy and adventure, why weird fantasy and adventure? And if exploration of character, why use dark or scary fiction to go there?

anita: I never set out to write dark and scary fiction. I wanted to write epic fantasy, but I kept killing off my characters (often quite gruesomely), and exploring darker subjects in my writing. To me, the darker aspects of human nature were more compelling, delving into a character’s choices and questionable actions, and their consequences. Eventually I accepted it as inevitable, and declared myself a writer of all things dark and macabre.

clarissa: The genre chose me—flat out. I started out writing fantasy. Mid-way through a book I was working on, I was hit by two characters (Cronan and Lucas; my death spirit and guardian from Between) who didn’t fit. I kept setting them aside, but they’d come back, stronger than ever. I gave in, and began writing my first paranormal novel. It took me a year to complete, and it was accepted by a publisher three months later. I joke that I was pulled into the Otherworld with Between. I’m on my sixth book, and the ideas come to me faster than I can write them down.


greydog: We started out with the same intentions, but also went dark and weird somewhere along the path. When you entered the field, were you affected by the market presence of other women already writing in the genre?

anita: Not really. As I said, I never made a conscious decision to write the scary stuff, I stumbled into it. Any market influence would have been by example of good writing, no matter what gender. For example, one of my one of my biggest writing influences is Ray Bradbury. Another is Agatha Christie. The only consideration I gave to gender was with my pen name, and using my initials instead of my full moniker. That decision was in part to be gender neutral, and not to be pre-judged—I’m a woman writing fantasy, so I must write romantic stuff (which is about as far from the truth as you can get).

clarissa: I have to say, I rage against being pigeon-holed as a paranormal romance author. Again, it’s very difficult to write paranormal without people assuming you write romance. I love men in all their forms, but shirtless men will never grace my book covers.

The Island cover art small file

greydog: We’ve heard it said that there is an area of paranormal and horror fiction which is dominated by male writers and readers, perhaps a bleaker, nastier section of the field. Do you think that’s the case?

anita: Possibly. I have found many female writers in the horror genre tend to lean more on the side of psychological horror as opposed to the gorier realm. (Though not all. I myself like to dabble with the blood and guts from time to time. In fact, I sometimes run a character body count on Twitter when I write a book.) That leaves the sub-genres of gore, slasher horror, and the so-called ‘torture porn’ open for the men to dominate. Though any discrepancy may simply be a matter of numbers, with horror in general still being dominated by the male writers.

As for the paranormal genre, that might be a matter of skewed perception. If you’re a woman and you say you write paranormal, I believe there’s still a tendency for people to automatically think ‘paranormal romance’, whether or not it’s true.

clarissa: There’s a definite sector of horror that’s hard core, and I do see the glut of that being written by men. However, there are women in that market too—and they can be just as twisted and evil, if not more so.

greydog: Let’s sneak down to character level. Do you feel more involved writing a female character, or does it make no difference what gender the character is?

clarissa: My characters tell me what to write, not vice versa. They come to me perfectly formed, and I usually dream their back stories. Because of that, I feel a connection to each and every one of them—male and female.

anita: I’m involved with every character, regardless of whether they are male or female. They all invade my head and talk to me, and tell me their stories. Although I do tend to find writing female characters easier (no doubt due to first-hand experience and all). I did deliberately put female characters front and centre with the Killers and Demons sequel, though. I figured why should the male villains have all the fun.


greydog: They shouldn’t! But on that point, there’s been a lot of talk about how well males can write female characters. The cheap way of writing so-called ‘strong’ female characters is to make them as axe-happy as the men and swear more. That may be fun, but it’s not exactly the answer. What makes a female character ‘strong’ for you?

anita: Generally I write my characters from a human perspective, as opposed to specific gender roles. I don’t approach characters as strong or weak, but well-rounded, with virtues and flaws both, be they male or female. I did, however, have to tackle this gender issue with Althea, the main character from my book Gothic Cavalcade. Her character has a background that could be viewed as stereotypical (a woman with a troubled and traumatic past) and it’s one of the few stories I wrote with a romance. So I needed to tread carefully, as not to turn her into a wishy-washy girl looking for a man to save her, or a hardened cliché. I needed a strong character, someone who survived evil, but still maintained a fragility of spirit. So I opted to make her cautious, even shy, in nature, but hopeful and sensible. A character whose choices lead her back to confront her past and eventually realise she can destroy it. And as the story plays out, her new love interest becomes her emotional guidepost, but not her saviour.

Also, I don’t think “axe-happy” women should necessarily be dismissed as a short-cut to a strong character. There’s no reason why female characters can’t be as action oriented as male ones. A character I’m currently writing, Doyle, is seriously lethal. But she has much more to her personality including slightly misguided loyalty, a sense of obligation, doubts, misgivings, and a maternal side that precipitates a change of heart and a change of allegiance. I think if you want strong female characters, then write them as fully realized human beings. And if they want to swing axes, let them.

clarissa: I find those particular characters annoying. If brandishing a weapon and dropping the f-bomb makes you strong, anybody can do that, it’s not a skill—sorry. Strength comes from within. A strong character (in my opinion) approaches a tough situation with their smarts. That said, I’m a pretty damn good fencer.


greydog: We’ll be careful what we say, then. Our fencing épées are rusting in mother’s loft (yes, we really did have some, but we were rubbish!).

And we suspect that we know the answer to the next question, from what you’ve both already said, but we’ll go there anyway. Do you feel that you write primarily for a female audience?

clarissa: I write stories for readers—I really don’t focus whether they’re male or female.

anita: In a word, no. I write for whoever likes dark fantasy and horror, with guaranteed dead bodies and little to no romance. I’m not picky, I’ll take any readers, female, male, alien, zombie…


greydog: Are there other female writer(s) in the field, early or contemporary, whom you admire?

anita: I admire fantasy writer, Jennifer Roberson very much (and if you’re looking for strong female characters, Del from her Tiger and Del series is a perfect example), and Morgan Llywelyn, who writes terrific historical fantasy and fiction. A recent favourite of mine is writer J. A. Clement, author of the On Dark Shores series; she’s a brilliant writer. And I have to give a shout-out to some fellow horror authors, Clarissa Johal, Ash Krafton, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Nina D’Arcangela, to name just a few.

clarissa: My favourite authors are male—Brom, Neil Gaiman and Robert Holdstock. There are a handful of classical authors I enjoy too, but again, all male.

greydog: Rob Holdstock was a great loss – Mythago Wood, just to name one book, was a seminal work in the eighties. Despite that, I remember talking to him about writing TV scripts to pay the mortgage, which always seemed unfair. Nice guy and a fellow zoologist, curiously enough.

Finally, as we’ve got you here, where next for both of you? Tell us what we might be seeing in 2016.

clarissa: I’m working on a paranormal novel, Poppy. My readers really liked a side-character from Struck, and kept asking for her story. Usually, I don’t do sequels or spin-offs, but decided to give it a go. Unbeknownst to me, Poppy had a story to be told! Here’s a peek at the blurb:

A red-headed, pink-loving mortician who speaks to the dead.
A socially awkward funeral director.
Poppy and Dante from Struck are back.

Something is lingering around Skyview Funeral Home–and it’s stealing souls of the departed. With Dante in tow, Poppy is determined to put a stop to it. Will she be able to protect those who are trying to cross over? Or will her soul be next?

anita: I’m working on three novels, in various stages of completion, at the moment. I have two steampunk books, one horror tinged book titled The Duke’s Assassin, one more of an adventure novel, called Racing the Hellfire Club. I’m also working on the first book in a dark fantasy series, called The Prophecy of Seven. Hopefully at least one will be finished sometime next year.

greydog: Many thanks for your time, Anita and Clarissa, and lots of luck with these projects.


We’ve put a couple of additional links to books up on the right-hand sidebar, but if you want to explore, Clarissa and Anita have author’s websites and Amazon pages as well, which can be found here:

clarissa johal

clarissa on amazon

anita stewart

a f stewart on amazon

Next week on greydogtales – probably more lurchers, and weird stuff by someone who isn’t around to complain… uh, what we mean is ‘a classic author’. That sounds better, doesn’t it?


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